Tracing The Arc of The Beatles
In Beckett’s Endgame, the character Hamm says: “The end is in the beginning, and yet you go on.” The beginning, however always seems to emerge from the middle. The release of the remastered Beatles Catalog has caused me to replay memories of listening to their music as it was originally released. And as I listen to the new releases (at this point, I only have Rubber Soul), the music isn’t heard directly, but through the lens of the intervening years. The music travels backwards and forwards through time connecting to a thousand threads, its sound resonant with reverie.
From this distance, I see the arc of the band beginning with Rubber Soul, continuing with Revolver and ending with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The time period spans 1965 to 1967. Of course, they performed and recorded before and after those dates, but this is the period where they seemed to really come into their own. The times were tumultuous, culture and technology were changing rapidly and the Beatles provided much of the soundtrack. The distance from Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper seems like it could only be measured in light years.
In the film Help, they presented an image of what it was like to be in a successful rock and roll band. The lads were friends and collaborators, they lived together, worked together, and enjoyed each other’s company. They serve as an extended family to each other; they inhabit a world without parents, wives or children. On Rubber Soul, you can begin to hear each member of the band start out on a path that will ultimately end in a parting of ways. I’m going to focus on the work of John Lennon and George Harrison. (You can do this same exercise for Paul and Ringo). By this time, they’d met Dylan, psychedelia was emerging and the idea of a rock band as a social unit was beginning to feel a little hokey. The band’s popularity had started to cut them off from both the world and their identity as performing musicians.
John Lennon had a tragic relationship with his mother, and it colored his relationship with women all his life. The line I’d like to trace here is from the song “Run For Your Life” with it’s violent lyrics about jealously and fidelity to a later, solo effort, called “Jealous Guy.” The movement within Lennon reflected the movement and growth of our culture. A similar arc can be traced from the song “Girl” to the song “Woman.”
The idealized relationship of the band as a kind of endless post-adolescence was beginning break up, as each of the members had to struggle with their own inner demons and find an individual path (the path to adulthood).
George Harrison’s contribution to Rubber Soul was a song called “Think For Yourself.” In the lyrics of this song you can see the seeds of Harrison’s future direction:
Although your mind’s opaque
Try thinking more if just for your own sake
The future still looks good
And you’ve got time to rectify all the things that you should
One can trace an arc from that song to Harrison’s solo work, specifically songs like “Isn’t it a Pity” and “Beware of Darkness.”
Watch out now, take care
Beware of soft shoe shufflers
Dancing down the sidewalks
As each unconscious sufferer
Beware of maya
As with the beginning, the end, too, emerges from the middle. The Sgt. Pepper album marked the end of the Beatles as a performing group and the beginning a new era of recording artistry. The asynchronous process of recording the album put additional stress on their unit cohesion. Ringo remembers those recording sessions as the time when he learned to play chess. The recording studio had become the dominant instrument, and the producer’s role central to the creative process. The resulting album marked the pinnacle of their success.
Around this time in Woodstock, New York, Bob Dylan’s backing band was creating an album that would be known as Music from Big Pink. It was the polar opposite of Sgt. Pepper. The group would eventually be called “The Band,” and they presented a new idea of what it meant to be in a performing rock and roll band. Their sound was firmly, and visibly, rooted in the sounds of American country music, early rock and roll and the Stax/Motown sound. After Sgt. Pepper, each member of the Beatles tried to move the group back toward being a performing unit. But the music was now Paul with a backing band, John with a backing band and so on. The Beatles were over.
The release of the remastered Beatles catalog provides an opportunity to really listen to the music, and the quality of the sound they created. I’m retracing my footsteps, starting with Rubber Soul. It may take 20 or 30 listens for me to truly hear it. Then I’ll move on to Revolver, and finally to Sgt. Pepper. Over 36 months, The Beatles’ music changed radically, it traces an unexpected and expansive route. As they used to say, “it blows my mind.”
I paid less attention to the work George Harrison the first time around. Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate him more and more. One of the things that brought me back around to Harrison was this cover of his song Isn’t it a Pity by the Cowboy Junkies: